West England


-Hi. I’m Rick Steves, back
with more of the best of Europe. This time, we’re exploring
a gorgeous region, where druids dance
and waterwheels turn. It’s the West of England. Thanks for joining us. ♪♪ If you like England
and you want to mix its natural, historic, and cultural wonders, you’ll love the West. While everything
in this episode’s within a couple hours of London, out here, it feels a world away
from the big city. After hiking through
picturesque Cotswold villages, we’ll play shuffleboard
with an eccentric lord. Earl of Wemyss:
That’s a nice one. We’ll tour a
striking cathedral, and attend evensong. After going way back
to the Neolithic Age, we’ll zoom into the new age. And we’ll top it off
with some hard apple cider straight from the farmer. Great Britain is made
of England, Scotland, and Wales. And we’re exploring
the West of England. Starting in the Cotswolds, we visit Stow-on-the-Wold
and Chipping Campden. Then it’s south to Wells,
Glastonbury, and the prehistoric
stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury. The Cotswold hills are dotted with enchanting villages
and bucolic farmland. And it’s all laced together
by wonderful trails. This is the quintessential
English countryside. And it’s walking country. The Cotswolds are best
appreciated on foot, and that’s how we’ll
tour the area. The region’s made to order
for tenderfeet. You’ll encounter
time-passed villages, delightful vistas,
and poetic moments. You’ll discover hidden
stone bridges, cut across fancy front yards, and enjoy close encounters
with lots of sheep. The English love their walks, and defend their age-old right
to free passage. And they organize to assure that landowners
respect this law, too. Any paths found blocked
are unceremoniously unblocked. While landlords have
plenty of fences, they provide plenty
of gates as well. You’ll encounter all sorts
of gates on these hikes. This one’s called
a “kissing gate” — it works better with two. Lower Slaughter is
a classic example of a Cotswold village,
with a babbling brook, charming gardens,
and a working water mill. Just above the mill, a delightful cafe
overlooks the mill pond. As with many fairy-tale
regions in Europe, the present-day
beauty of the Cotswolds was the result
of an economic disaster. Wool was a huge industry
in medieval England. And Cotswold sheep
grew the very best. According
to a 12th-century saying, “In Europe,
the best wool is English. And in England,
the best wool is Cotswold.” It’s a story of boom and bust,
and then boom again. Because of its wool,
the region prospered. Wealthy wool merchants
built fine homes of the honey-colored,
local limestone. Thankful to God for the riches
their sheep brought, they built over-sized churches
nicknamed “wool cathedrals.” But with the rise of cotton
and the Industrial Revolution, the region’s wool
industry collapsed. The fine Cotswold towns fell
into a depressed time warp, becoming sleeping beauties. Because of that, the region
has a rustic charm. And that’s the basis
of today’s new prosperity. Its residents are catering
to lots of tourists, and the Cotswolds have become a
popular escape for Londoners — people who can afford
thatched mansions like these. In England, “Main Street”
is called “the high street” — and in Cotswold market towns, high street was built wide, designed to handle thousands
of sheep on market days. The handsome market
town of Chipping Campden has a high street that’s changed
little over the centuries. Everything you see was made of the same finely
worked Cotswold stone, the only stone allowed today. Roofs still use
the traditional stone shingles. To make the weight
easier to bear, smaller and lighter slabs
are higher up. A 17th-century market hall, with its original stonework
from top to bottom intact, marks the town center. Hikers admire the surviving
medieval workmanship. You can imagine centuries
of wheelings and dealings that took place
under these very rafters. Continuing our walk, we come to the quaint
village of Stanton. Travel writers tend to
overuse the word “quaint.” I save it for here
in the Cotswolds. A strict building code
keeps towns looking what many locals
call “overly quaint.” Village churches welcome walkers to pop in and enjoy
a thoughtful break. This church probably sits
upon an ancient pagan site. How do we know?
It’s dedicated to Saint Michael. And Michael, the archangel
who fought the devil, still guards the door. Inside, you get a sense
that this church has comforted this community
in good times and bad. Pre-Christian symbols
decorate the columns, perhaps left over
from those pagan days. And the list of rectors
goes way back, without a break,
to the year 1269. This church was built
with wool money. In fact, they say
generations of sheepdog leashes actually wore these grooves. I guess a shepherd
took his dog everywhere, even to church. Throughout this region, a few of the vast domains
of England’s most powerful families
have survived. The Cotswolds are dotted
with elegant, Downton Abbey-type mansions. Today, with the high cost
of maintenance and heavy taxes, some noble families
have opened their homes to the public
to help pay the bills. Stanway House,
home of the Earl of Wemyss, is one such venerable
manor house. The Earl, whose family
goes back centuries, welcomes visitors
two days a week. Walking through his house offers
a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lifestyles
of England’s nobility. And the gracious and likeably
eccentric Earl has agreed to personally show us
around his ancestral home, including a peak at some
touching family mementos. Earl of Wemyss: Hair, cut off
at a death in the family. Rick: That was a tradition? Early of Wemyss: It was, certainly
in this house it was a tradition. And it’s kept in this drawer, here.
And, um, for instance, this is, this says “Papa’s hair. My sister
gave it me March the 11th, 1771.” Rick: This piece of paper is from 1771?
Earl of Wemyss: Mm-hmm. And then that’s the hair inside.
Rick: Oh, my goodness! Earl of Wemyss:…just as fresh
as the day it was cut off. Rick: Whoa!
Earl of Wemyss: And that’s his hair, cut off on the day
his wife died of pneumonia. Rick: So this is a huge table.
Earl of Wemyss: It is. It’s 23 feet long.
Rick: And what’s the game? Earl of Wemyss: It’s called
“shuffleboard” or “shovelboard.” Rick: Mm-hmm. Earl of Wemyss: It was
known in Henry VIII’s time. This one was built,
we think, in 1625, just the beginning
of the reign of Charles I. And you use these 10 pieces and you try and…
Rick: Let’s try a game! Earl of Wemyss:…shovel the lot
to the far end. That’s a nice one. Rick: It may be a game
for English aristocrats. But this Yankee commoner is
gonna give it a try. Earl of Wemyss: Very good.
Very good. One point. Very good. Very nice,
but two foot short. Rick: Another
interesting artifact is what was called
a “chamber horse,” a sprung exercise chair
from the 1750s. Earl of Wemyss: And you did that.
You’d bounce up and down. And your liver gets shaken. Rick: For 100 years, fine ladies
would sit on here and… Earl of Wemyss: Yep.
Rick:…get their liver done. Earl of Wemyss: And
fine gentlemen, too. Rick: Fine gentlemen too, yep. A “chamber horse.” I guess that makes sense,
doesn’t it? Yeah. Earl of Wemyss: It’s just like
going to the gym nowadays. Rick: Lord Wemyss has rebuilt
the old fountain in his backyard, and today — as one of
the highest gravity-fed fountains in the world rockets
300 feet into the sky — it’s the talk of the Cotswolds. For commoners, the Lord’s
sprawling parkland backyard makes for a jolly-good day out. While not quite in
a noble mansion, we’re sleeping plenty
comfortably just down the road in the village of
Stow-on-the-Wold. Stow mixes medieval charm
with a workaday reality. A selection of traditional pubs, cute shops, and inviting cafés
ring its busy square. For centuries, the square
hosted a huge wool market. The historic Market Cross
stood tall, reminding all Christian
merchants to trade fairly
under the sight of God. And stocks like these were handy when a scoundrel deserved
a little public ridicule. People came from as far away
as Italy to buy the prized
Cotswold wool fleeces. You can imagine, with 20,000
sheep sold on a single day, it was a thriving scene. The sheep would be
paraded into the market down narrow “fleece alleys”
like this. They were built really narrow
’cause it forced the sheep to go single file, so they could count them
as they entered the market. And ever since those
medieval market days, pubs have been
the place to gather [and] enjoy a meal,
and a pint of beer. Tonight, we’re checking
out a gastropub — that’s a pub known
for its fine food. While many things that pubs
provide, like the cozy ambience and community-living-room
vibe haven’t changed, other things — like the quality
of the food — certainly have. This isn’t your
grandmother’s pub grub. Pubs are putting more
effort into their offerings. Creative chefs are shaking up
England’s reputation for food, and you won’t find mushy peas
anywhere on this menu. We’re enjoying guinea fowl and artfully prepared fish
with fresh vegetables. A short drive south
take us into Somerset and to the wonderfully
preserved city of Wells, dominated by
its glorious cathedral. Wells has a charming
medieval center. The stately Bishop’s Palace
is circled by a park-like moat and sports
an impressive front yard. It’s a market city —
and has been for a long time. The peaceful Vicars’ Close
is perfectly preserved, lined with 14th-century houses. Locals claim this is the oldest, complete medieval street
in Europe. Originally built to house the
cathedral choir, it still does. This overpass connects it
with the cathedral. England’s first completely
Gothic church dates from about 1200. The west portal shows off what’s said to be the greatest
collection of medieval statuary anywhere in Europe — about 300
13th-century carvings. This entire ensemble was
once painted in vivid color. It must have been
a spectacular welcome — a heavenly host proclaiming “welcome to worship.” Stepping inside,
you’re struck by the unique and ingenious “scissors” arch. This hour-glass-shaped
double arch was added in about 1340 to bolster
the church’s sagging tower. Nearly 700 years later it’s not only still
working, it’s beautiful. [ Bell chimes ] The chimes draw your attention to one of the oldest working
clocks in the world — from
1392. The clock does its much-loved
joust on the quarter hour. More medieval whimsy
is carved into the capitals: This man has a toothache. Another pulls a thorn
from his foot. And a farmer clobbers
a thief so hard, his hat falls off. [ Choir singing ] And under glorious
stained glass, you can enjoy
the cathedral’s evensong. The evensong is a Church
of England choral service traditionally performed
each evening and welcoming everyone. Taking a seat in the intimate
central part of the church, we enjoy the opportunity
to experience the church filled
with timeless music. Because we’re here in July, the cathedral’s choir
is on break, and a visiting choir
is performing. This one’s from near Liverpool. [ Choir singing ] [ Singing continues ] The countryside around Wells
is great for growing apples. And you can visit farms that
brew the authentic hard cider, known around here as “scrumpy.” While cider is becoming more
and more refined and popular, the traditional scrumpy
still attracts a devoted crowd, especially here in Somerset. And at Land’s End Cider Farm, Roger Wilkins
is as old-school as it comes. His enthusiasm alone
is intoxicating. Rick: Did your father make
this same cider? Roger: Me father did, but
actually, I learned it off me
grandfather. The actual makin’ of the cider
is exactly the same now as me grandfather done it. Alls we do is crush ’em up,
press the apples, then natural juice comes out, And the yeast is
in the skin of the apple, so I don’t put nothin’
at all in it. It’s the purest
drink you’ll get. Rick: We head into
the tasting room, which I’m guessing looks
about the same as it did when Roger’s grandfather
ran the place. It’s time to sample
the pure apple taste of scrumpy, along with its
6.8 alcohol content. Rick: I’ve heard that
when you drink scrumpy, you’ve got to be careful.
Roger: Well, yeah. It can knock you about
if you ain’t used to it. Gallon a day
keep the doctor away! Rick: I’ve heard some — I’ve heard some pubs actually
don’t serve it because… Roger: No. No.
They won’t, some. If you go in now, they’ll
serve you a half a pint, eh. Rick: And it’s pure so it — it’s so pure that,
in the morning, no problem? Roger: No problem at all.
No headaches. Rick: Yeah?
Roger: No hangovers. No nothin’. Rick: That may be true,
but after my tasting, I’m making sure
my producer does the driving. Throughout England,
the countryside is picturesque. And it hides
a fascinating history, a history that goes back
thousands of years to prehistoric times. Mysterious figures carved
into hillsides, curious man-made mountains, ancient bridges, and legends that go back
to Camelot and beyond. Glastonbury,
a modest market town today, has long had a holy aura. It was a religious sight
back in the Bronze Age. That’s about 1500 B.C. It’s also considered
the birthplace of Christianity in England and the burial sight
of the legendary King Arthur. Centuries before Christ,
this hill, called a “tor,”
marked Glastonbury. For thousands of years, pilgrims and seekers
have climbed it. Today, it’s capped
by the ruins of a church dedicated to Saint Michael. Remember, because Saint Michael was the Christian
antidote to paganism, it’s a good bet
this church sits upon a pre-Christian holy site. Seen by many as a mother
goddess symbol, the Glastonbury tor
has long attracted a variety of travelers
and seekers. And the tor has a Biblical
connection, as well. For centuries,
pilgrims have come here to Glastonbury on a quest
for the legendary Holy Grail. You see, Joseph of Arimathea, who was an uncle of Christ,
was a tin trader. And even back in Biblical times, Britain was well known
as a rare place where tin could be mined. Considering that, Joseph
could have sat right here with the chalice
that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper —
in his satchel. Near the base of the hill
is a calm and meditative garden built around a natural spring. According to legend,
the Holy Grail lies at the bottom
of the Chalice Well. In the past, people came here
for physical healing. Today, seekers still
come for healing. But it’s more for a wellness
of the mind and soul. England’s first church
was built here, at the base of the hill
next to the Chalice Well. Eventually, a great abbey was built on the site
of that church. Mix the scant ruins
of England’s first church with the mystique of King Arthur
and the Holy Grail, add the hard work
of a busy monastery, and, by the 12th century,
Glastonbury Abbey was the leading
Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain. It was huge,
employing 1,000 people to serve the needs
of its pilgrims. At its peak,
Glastonbury Abbey was England’s
most powerful and wealthy. It was part of a network
of monasteries that, by the year 1500,
challenged the King. They owned about a quarter
of all English land. They had more money
than the King. To King Henry VIII, abbeys like
this were political obstacles. In 1536, he solved that by dissolving England’s
monasteries. He was particularly
harsh on Glastonbury. He not only destroyed
its magnificent church, but for emphasis,
his men hung the abbot, displayed his head
on the abbey gates, and sent his quartered body on four different national
tours… at the same time. Without its wealthy abbey,
the town fell into a depression. But Glastonbury rebounded. An 18th-century
tourism campaign, with thousands claiming
that water from the Chalice Well actually healed them,
put Glastonbury back on the map. Today, Glastonbury
and its mysterious hill are a center for “searchers,” popular with those
on their own spiritual quest. Part of the fun of a visit here
is just being in a town where goddesses go
for their conventions, where every other shop
has a New-Age focus and where alternative
is the norm. For a more tangible look at the spiritual mystery
of this countryside, prehistoric stone circles are scattered
all across Britain. These circles, many as old
as Egypt’s pyramids, were sacred centers
of ritual and worship. They functioned
as celestial calendars. 5,000 years ago,
locals could tell when to plant and when to party according
to where the sun rose and where the sun set. It still works that way today. At the Avebury Stone Circle, you’re free to wander
among 100 stones. Visitors ponder the cohesive
ensemble of ditches, mounds, and megaliths — the work of people
clearly on a mission from thousands of years ago. The huge circle,
while cut in two by a busy road and so big it
contains a village, retains its allure and wonder. And nearby stands Silbury Hill, a yet-to-be-explained
man-made mountain of chalk. For more than 4,000 years, this largest
man-made construction from prehistoric Europe is just another edifice
from England’s mysterious and ancient religious landscape. And exactly
what’s it all mean? We’ll never know for sure. It’s like looking at the ruins
of a medieval church and from that alone trying
to understand Christianity. Stonehenge is the most famous
of Britain’s stone circles. A visit starts at the museum, where you’ll see artifacts from the Stone Age people
who built it. A 360-degree theater
demonstrates how the structure
is aligned with the heavens, marking both the longest and the shortest days
of the year. And outside, a thatched-hut
hamlet helps you imagine how its Neolithic builders
once lived. Huge stones like this replica
were quarried, carved and then moved
for many miles, some of them from
as far away as Wales, 200 miles to the west. They barged them down rivers; they may have rolled them
on logs like this — nobody knows for sure. After this introduction, a bus shuttles you to the site. Visitors are in awe
as they ponder the continuously debated
purposes and meaning of Stonehenge. The major stones were erected at the end of the Stone Age, just before the advent
of metal tools. It’s amazing to think that
some of these cross stones have been in place
for 4,500 years. Whatever its original purpose, Stonehenge still functions
as a celestial calendar. Even in modern times, the sun rises
on the longest day of the year in just the right spot. And it retains its powerful
sense of wonder over those who gather. For over 4,000 years in a row, this ensemble of stones,
so artfully assembled, has silently done its duty. [ Crow cawing ] Why here and
for what purpose? These questions, along with many
more about Stonehenge, remain shrouded in mystery. But there’s no mystery
at all about the fact that this part of England is a fascinating region
to explore. Thanks for joining us.
I’m Rick Steves. Until next time,
keep on travelin’. -Ah, you’ve got a big one.
-Oh, you… -There you go.
[ Laughter ] -You read on there? -Considering that,
Joseph could’ve sat right here with the… Ah! This is the quintessential
English countryside. And it’s walking country.

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